Time to believe: Greene’s rise no superstition

Detroit Tigers

Riley Greene woke up one morning last May and wondered what his life had come to. In that sense, he was no different than many other young adults trying to find their place in the world.

It’s a little different when that moment happens while he’s cuddling a baseball bat in his sleep.

He’d gone hitless that night for Double-A Erie, and had gone a week without an extra-base hit or an RBI. So he decided to take his bat to bed with him.

“Wasn’t playing too well, just a couple mental things,” Greene said at the time, “and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to sleep with this and see what happens.’ Suddenly I got a couple hits, confidence was up, and my dad was like, ‘Hey, man, if you ever are struggling, just go sleep with your bat again.’

“I never did anything like that [before]. It was just like a come-to-Jesus moment where I was like, ‘All right, I’ve gotta figure out something, because I’m the only one that can help me with this.’ I just tried something.”

The next day, he tallied three hits and five RBIs. The game after that, he relaxed and hit a pair of solo homers with two walks. He mentioned it after the game and the story took off.

That was one of the first times that casual fans outside of Tigers circles learned about Riley Greene, one of the game’s top prospects who is set to take MLB by storm. It’s also one of the first things to know about Riley Greene.

“I’m very superstitious,” says Greene, who MLB Pipeline has ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect. “I once went to the same coffee shop for a month straight and got the same meal, same coffee, everything.”

Of course, this was when he was on a hitting tear. He didn’t literally go every day, thanks to road trips, but you get the idea. He wasn’t necessarily enamored with the place. He’s not sure the staff there ever learned his name. But while he hit, he kept going.

That tendency to roll with a good thing also applied to dinner, where Greene could be accused of channeling his inner Wade Boggs.

“He likes his chicken tenders,” fellow Tigers prospect Parker Meadows said. “He eats a lot of chicken tenders. He eats a lot of Chick-Fil-A, a lot of Zaxby’s. He’s a big chicken guy.”

If Greene has a bad game, he has to do something different. He once stepped into a shower with his uniform still on to try to break a slump.

“I’m like, ‘Riley, you’re not slumping. You’re 0-for-4,’” Tigers rookie Spencer Torkelson said with a laugh. “But he’s so used to getting hits every single night. It’s kind of funny.”

The superstitions are a funny trait for someone whose climb to the Major Leagues has been marked by a beautifully consistent swing and a laser focus to work on hitting a baseball.

“It’s not normal what he does with the bat,” said Greene’s high-school coach, Matt Cleveland.

Some of that comes from pure talent. Some of that comes from family. A very small part might come from chicken and coffee. None of it comes from luck.

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THE SWING IS THE THING

If you’ve been to a Tigers Spring Training game in the last few years, you might have seen Alan Greene, even if you didn’t notice him. Most of the time, he’s sitting there quietly in the family section behind home plate, chatting with family or friends. When his son comes to the plate, he’ll take out his cell phone and record the at-bat.

Alan is a proud parent. He’s also a swing guy. He was a former college baseball player at Florida Tech who turned his love for the game into a career as a professional hitting instructor, working at a sports facility in Oviedo, Fla., on the northeast edge of the Orlando area.

He has worked with many promising young hitters. With Riley, he had an eager pupil.

“I know I started playing tee ball when I was like 3,” Riley said.

That smooth, powerful left-handed swing has been crafted over years and years of practice.

When Riley’s grandmother accidentally bought her left-handed grandson right-handed golf clubs, his dad was happy with it, figuring a right-handed golf swing wouldn’t mess with a left-handed bat swing. They worked together so much that they had to use lights in their yard so that they could keep going at night.

Eventually, Riley Greene advanced far enough that he no longer had his father as his primary coach. But Alan Greene is still there for help. He watches most if not all of Riley’s games online, and he’s always a phone call or text away.

“It’s awesome having someone to go to when I need help and not be a coach, being my father,” Riley said. “Just being able to text him and say, ‘Hey, what did you see?’ Or if I just want to talk, just son and dad. It’s great having him going through all this.

“If I need him, I’ll ask him. But if I don’t, he tends to stay away, which I like. He’s not constantly calling me and being like, ‘Hey man, your hands were a centimeter lower than they were last night.’ He’s not really doing that, which is good. You go 0-for-4 one day, you don’t really want to talk to anyone. You kind of just want to go home and relax. It’s nice.”

Above all, he’s supportive — even of his son sleeping with his bat. That’s an understanding parent.

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THE LEGEND GROWS

Though Oviedo is big enough to be called a city, it’s still small enough that stories got around about a young Riley Greene.

Cleveland was a coach at another school when he first saw that swing in the summer before Riley’s freshman year.

“Riley, in a game on a regular high school field, as an eighth-grader, hit the ball off the right-field wall twice and the left-field wall twice,” Cleveland said. “The last pitch was over his head and he tomahawked it.”

Another story that went around town was almost too much for Cleveland to believe.

“They tried to intentionally walk him when he was 8 years old,” Cleveland said, retelling a story that had been relayed to him, “and he just takes an outside pitch and hit it over the fence.”

Riley says he was older; otherwise, the story is the same. The end result isn’t even the best part.

“It was actually off one of my best friends,” Greene said. “We weren’t best friends at the time, but we knew of each other. And then in high school, we became really close.

“It’s kind of funny, because he always talks about it sometimes. He’s like, ‘Yeah, Riley hit a home run off of me off an intentional walk.’ But we were like 10 years old. It was Little League. It was during Christmas time, I remember, and there was a blow-up snowman in the outfield. And I hit it.”

It was just like a come-to-Jesus moment where I was like, ‘All right, I’ve gotta figure out something, because I’m the only one that can help me with this.’

Riley Greene

That polished swing kept punishing pitches on the occasions when opponents would pitch to him. A natural athleticism also came through.

At one point during Greene’s senior year, with pro scouts watching even during batting practice, the teenager went to his coach and asked if he might be pulling the ball too much in search of power. He watched a video in which All-Star Freddie Freeman said he tried to hit every ball in BP to right-center field.

“Two weeks later, a workout for a pro organization, I’m throwing,” Cleveland said, “and the kid hits 15 of the first 16 pitches out to dead center. He’s special, man.”

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MAKING AN IMPRESSION ON MIGGY

James Orr had been in the Tigers’ amateur scouting department for over a decade, but he and his family moved to Oviedo in 2016. His daughter enrolled at Hagerty High School, where Greene was a popular member of the freshman class.

“It wasn’t even about being popular,” Cleveland said. “He just kept a great group of friends.”

Around the same time, Orr heard from an old friend, Kevin O’Sullivan, the head baseball coach at the University of Florida, where Greene had just committed to play. O’Sullivan gave Orr a scouting report.

That combination put Greene on the Tigers’ radar.

The Tigers were a .500 team entering the summer of 2018, before fading down the stretch and landing the fifth overall pick in the 2019 Draft. Speculation suggested that Detroit could take a college player with a faster projected path to the big leagues to help jumpstart their rebuild. But the Tigers have never been shy about drafting a high-school player if he’s the right fit.

“We watched Riley for a long time,” scouting director Scott Pleis said at the time, “and the more you watch a player, the more you’re comfortable with his ability. And then you get to know them as much as you can.”

With Greene, the ability and the makeup matched. His two big purchases upon being drafted were a boat to go fishing on the water, and a truck to tow it.

“He loves to fish,” his agent, Tripper Johnson, said.

The day Greene signed, he took batting practice at Comerica Park before the Major Leaguers hit the field. Some players, curious about the new face of the Tigers’ rebuild, sat in the dugout and watched. Among them was Miguel Cabrera.

This time, Greene did not hesitate to pull. He hit balls onto the Pepsi Porch above the right-field seats. And as he made his way back to the dugout, Cabrera was sold.

“Leave him here,” Cabrera called out.

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A FRIENDSHIP OF FUTURE STARS

Greene quickly hit his way out of Class A Short Season and finished that summer at High-A West Michigan. He showed enough promise to earn spot appearances in Spring Training games with the Major League club, where he made an instant impression. By the midway point of camp, Tigers chairman Christopher Ilitch was curious to see him play.

Greene’s path was picking up when the COVID-19 pandemic halted Spring Training and scuttled the 2020 Minor League season.

Greene joined the big league squad in July for Summer Camp in Detroit, where he met 2020 top Draft picks Torkelson and Dillon Dingler. When camp broke, they spent the rest of the pandemic-shortened season at the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio. All they had were intrasquad scrimmages against each other. They faced the same pitchers, all teammates, over and over. When workouts ended, they went back to the same place and kept to themselves.

Somehow, they never got sick of each other.

“It’s incredible how easy he was to get along with,” Dingler said. “Me, him and Spencer got pretty close during that year.”

While Greene opened last season at Double-A Erie, Torkelson and Dingler started at High-A West Michigan before joining him in June. When Greene and Torkelson were promoted to Triple-A Toledo last summer, Greene packed their stuff in his truck and drove it across Ohio.

Even when Greene was scratched from the Arizona Fall League last year following a collision in Toledo, and Torkelson was later pulled with an ankle injury, they hung out at Torkelson’s Arizona home.

“We just clicked right away,” Greene said.

To hear Greene and Torkelson discuss being roommates was like hearing a sitcom idea. Torkelson tried to help his teammate with a sense of fashion.

“We’re getting Riley away from the tennis-shoes-and-jeans look,” Torkelson said at the time. “We’re venturing off into bigger and better things in his style.”

They have stories about Greene’s superstitions. But they also have stories about Greene’s feats, as a player and a person. Then came this past Spring Training.

“I mean, I hate to bring it up,” Dingler said, “but he broke his foot on a foul ball against Gerrit Cole in a Spring Training game, and then burned the center fielder on the next pitch and then legged out a triple. That tells you what kind of player he is.”

“He broke his foot and then hit a standup triple,” Torkelson marveled. “That’s probably the coolest thing I’ve seen him do.”

How did he do it?

“Adrenaline,” Torkelson said. “He said he hurt it and it felt like a bruise. Once he got to third and took a couple steps, he was like, ‘Oh, wait. It hurts a lot.’”

Meadows was sharing a house with Torkelson, Greene and others in Spring Training, but he was in Minor League camp at the time.

“I think it was April Fool’s Day that it happened,” he said. “I walked into the house and the guys told me, and I kind of laughed because I thought they were all joking. Then I walk in his room and he’s in a boot. That’s just Riley, him running out a triple against Gerrit Cole. The guy’s just unbelievable.”

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WAITING FOR THE CALL

As incredible as it was to leg out a triple with a broken foot, the attitude Greene took into his first major injury might have topped it. While he hadn’t been told he had made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster, the announcement was expected. Torkelson — who entered the season just ahead of Greene on prospect lists — was told the next day that he had made the team.

Greene’s Major League dream had been deferred, but not denied.

Somehow, the superstitious young man wanted to make something good out of his misfortune.

“I think that first weekend he was really bummed out,” Johnson, his agent, said. “I saw him three days later, and he said, ‘This is part of baseball. This is what I signed up for.’”

Now, with his big league debut in the rearview mirror, Greene need not be superstitious. He has plenty of positive energy behind him, from family to teammates to coaches.

“I’m happy for him,” Dingler said. “I’m happy for the situation he put himself in. Very unfortunate situation, breaking his foot, but it’s not going to slow him down at all. He’s a great player. He’s got a great attitude.”

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